The Long Shadow review: True-crime drama has a leering fixation with the gory details

ITV show seeks to shift the focus to the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper, but it actually ends up glamourising of one of Britain’s worst ever serial killers

Nick Hilton
Monday 25 September 2023 22:00 BST
The Long Shadow trailer

The term “Ripperology” was coined in the 1970s to describe the obsessive community that had grown, over the course of a century, around the Jack the Ripper case. Some Ripperologists posited absurd theories, others championed obscure suspects or stalked the killer’s east London haunts. A few turned the focus to his victims. But all were driven by the strange frisson of curiosity that arises from proximity to evil. That fixation with the unsolved Victorian murders led, also in the Seventies, to the media branding a new Ripper and creating a new legion of Ripperologists. This time, it was the Yorkshire Ripper – Peter Sutcliffe – who is the subject of a new seven-part ITV drama, The Long Shadow.

“I find if you don’t solve a murder in the first couple of days,” purrs David Morrissey’s Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, “it’s an uphill struggle after that.” When the body of a prostitute is found in Leeds in 1975, the police are optimistic about a swift resolution. But ACC Oldfield’s warning rings true: days turn to weeks, weeks to years and the bodies start to stack up. At the centre of the case, in its early moments, is Detective Chief Superintendent Dennis Hoban (Toby Jones). DCS Hoban’s job is twofold: he must catch the killer but also fight the public indifference to the murders of sex workers. “While this man is at large,” he declares, solemnly, in a TV appeal, “no prostitute is safe.” Jones and Morrissey are the core of a cast of excellent British actors (which includes Daniel Mays, Lee Ingleby, Liz White and many others), and the drama unfolds against an impeccably recreated backdrop of 1970s Yorkshire.

As the case drags on, the detectives overseeing the enquiries change but the victims stay the same: young women, predominantly sex workers, targeted by the shadowy figure of Sutcliffe (Mark Stobbart). Structurally, The Long Shadow takes an episodic focus to both the changes on the police team, and to each victim, walking through their lives as they reach their end. In the first episode, for example, one of the eventual victims is pushed by financial insecurity into sex work. Her death happens, mercifully, off screen, but not before her first experience “soliciting” is shown in graphic detail. At home, the woman’s children are shocked to hear their mother referred to, on television, as a prostitute. It’s hard to imagine what they’d think of this dramatisation of her final hours.

Everyone’s tolerance for the endless conveyor belt of true crime is different. I have a high tolerance. There is a disinhibiting pleasure in being scared or disgusted, and the knowledge that the stories are true only adds that disturbing thrill. Great dramatisations of true crime, like David Fincher’s Zodiac or Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, understand that there are delicate ingredients to balance. The puzzle, certainly, and the fear.

But it is a difficult balance. The Long Shadow seeks to do what a lot of modern true crime does (spurred, perhaps, by Hallie Rubenhold’s acclaimed book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper ), and shift the focus to the victims. It is a decision that doesn’t pay off, because, at its heart, The Long Shadow is fundamentally leering. “The only way to get more clues is for the bastard to do it again,” DCI Hobson says, and the bastard does do it again (and again). As an audience, we know where the drama is heading. The music swells when an identikit image is produced, because we know it’s Sutcliffe. When the man himself enters the drama – played by an actor so chiselled the ancient Egyptians would have smashed his face against the pyramid walls – it makes the hairs on your arms stand to attention. It is cheap and titillating and wildly unnecessary.

Netflix, Channel 5, Channel 4, ITV: all have previously broadcast television shows about the Yorkshire Ripper. The case has inspired songs by Siouxsie and the Banshees and Slipknot. The story has wormed its way into the national psyche and now onto a prestige dramatisation. “Why did they call him the Ripper?” a mother of one of the victims despairs, as the show inadvertently chastises itself for its glamourisation of one of Britain’s worst-ever serial killers. The Long Shadow’s title speaks to the legacy of violence, its impact through the generations. But, in reality, the show dedicates only its final ten minutes to this question. The longest shadow cast here is actually the continued fixation with the gory details, one that has a stranglehold over a nation of Ripperologists.

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